A summer collegiate baseball season played under the cloud of COVID-19, complete with spectator bans and face-covered players, is nearing its climax with a very good omen for the Santa Barbara Foresters:
The oddest of years is also an even year, 2020, which “means it could be our year,” manager Bill Pintard pointed out.
The Foresters, seven-time champions of the National Baseball Congress World Series, have won titles in six of the last seven even years (2006, 2008, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018). That sequence was broken only in 2010, and Santa Barbara came back the next season to win the 2011 crown.
The Foresters (26-4) will begin play in the 86th annual event tonight at 6:30 p.m. PDT at Wichita State’s Eck Stadium. They will face the winner of Monday night’s game between the Rose Hill, Kan. Sluggers and the Denver Cougars. Radio and live-streaming coverage can be accessed at the NBC website (nbcbaseball.com).
Santa Barbara’s winning percentage of .867 has it on pace to break the club record of .841 set during its 53-10 season of 2003. This year’s success was enough to convince Pintard to endure the complications and expense caused by the coronavirus and fly a team of 29 players plus coaches to Wichita.
“We couldn’t just quit and send everyone home,” he said upon Monday’s arrival in Wichita. “The players to a man wanted to come and the coaches wanted to come. This is a pretty good team and I think they can do some real damage.
“I guess we just love watching these guys play, they’re so good.”
Santa Barbara, which advanced to the quarterfinals of last year’s event, is hitting .323 as a team, displaying both power (33 home runs) and speed (121 stolen bases). The pitching has also been strong with a team earned run average of 2.73 and 368 strikeouts in just 267 1/3 innings.
Pintard has brought a 16-man pitching staff to help it deal with a schedule that will be crammed into eight days instead of the usual two weeks. The championship game is scheduled for next Monday.
“This team is one of the best we’ve had,” Pintard said. “I was a little concerned about our middle relief midway through the season, but that’s been shored up.
“Derek True had his best outing the other night and he’s a guy we can use with confidence.”
Nick Nastrini will start tonight for the Foresters. The 6-foot-3 righthander from UCLA leads the Foresters in pitching victories, having compiled a win-loss record of 4-0 with 30 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings.
“He’s our guy: a steady pitcher with experience as a Saturday starter in the Pac-12,” Pintard said.
A win would put the Foresters into Thursday’s quarterfinals of the double-elimination event. A loss would drop them into a loser’s bracket game on Wednesday.
Pintard is waiting until he knows his next opponent before picking his second-game starting pitcher. He admits to having a luxury of choices with the likes of Arkansas’ Blake Adams (2-0, 1.42 ERA), Cal State Fullerton’s Kyle Luckham (1-0, 1.90), and recent Santa Barbara High graduate Bryce Warrecker (3-0, 0.38 ERA).
Warrecker leads the Foresters in strikeouts with 37 in 24 innings. He’s allowed only seven hits, two walks, and one run in 10 appearances, most of them in relief.
“I knew he’d throw strikes and I knew he could locate,” Pintard said of the 6-foot-8 righthander. “He’s got tremendous command. I just didn’t know if he’d put it all together this summer, and he did. He’s exceeded all expectations.
“Hitters don’t get a good look at him and can’t see his pitches so well since he’s 6-8 and throws on such a downhill plane. His velocity will come, too. At the end of the day, he’ll be in the low 90s (mph), for sure.”
Warrecker will be joining True, his former Santa Barbara High teammate, at Cal Poly this fall. Another former Don, infielder Nick Oakley, has also come on strong of late to increase his batting average to .324. He laid down a run-scoring, two-out bunt single during the 10th inning of last Thursday’s game against Santa Maria to give the Foresters a walk-off victory.
“He had the courage to drag home that winning run and he also came up with a big hit against a very good pitcher and scored the tying run in Saturday’s game (against the Inland Empire Pirates),” Pintard said.
Oakley’s versatility will help the Foresters cope with the absence of Peyton Graham, a third baseman from Oklahoma who didn’t make the trip because of an injury.
The Foresters’ lineup leads off with a powerful one-two punch in UCLA shortstop Matthew McLain (.478 batting average, five home runs, 16 stolen bases) and Texas Tech second baseman Jace Jung (.424, eight homers, 17 stolen bases). McLain is on pace to break the team record for batting average (.439 set by Bill Scott in 1998).
“He’ll break it unless he goes 0-for-30 in the tournament,” Pintard said. “Our team home run record is also in jeopardy even though we’ve only played about two-thirds of a normal season.”
Oklahoma State’s Christian Encarnacion has placed himself in the club’s all-time, top-10 for both homers (nine) and runs batted in (43) despite having played in just 25 games. He’s batting .350.
Other key hitters for Santa Barbara are UCLA catcher Noah Cardenas (.338); the University of Arizona trio of Sean McLain (.314), Branden Boissiere (.310), and Ryan Holgate (.294 with four homers), and former SBCC star Pat Caulfield (.272), who started in UCLA’s outfield last spring.
“Without a doubt, this is one of the best hitting clubs we’ve ever had,” Pintard said.
Caulfield leads a speedy Forester team with 24 stolen bases in as many attempts. The team has only been caught stealing 19 times in 140 attempts.
“That’s our highest percentage ever,” Pintard said.
The Foresters will be tested in their attempt to achieve their highest winning percentage ever. The top-seeded Cheney, Kan. Diamond Dawgs made it to last year’s NBC World Series final before losing to Seattle, the team which also eliminated Santa Barbara.
But the success of even years isn’t the only tradition that Pintard hopes to keep alive in the next week. The first thing he did upon his arrival in Wichita was to call Via Christi Hospital and arrange his team’s annual Hugs for Cubs visit to the children’s ward.
“We’re hoping to maybe do something with them outside,” he said.
It would be just another adjustment in a summer full of them.